Have you ever entered an area in a game that seems to pull you in and bring you to another world? An area that uses imagery or music that's presented so masterfully that you can feel the wind blowing on your face, the hear the silence of the snow surround you, or feel the tension in the darkened woods around you? An area that you could only describe as magical?
I certainly have. Seven is a mystical number, so let's go with the top seven mystical areas in video games.
7. The Halo - 'Halo: Combat Evolved'
While the Halo franchise is most well known for its multiplayer, the setting of the first game's campaign stands out to me, even years later, as a world that's worth visiting simply for the story it has to tell. Set on the titular Halo, the game took place on a massive ring capable of supporting life. The Halo's surface functions as its own planet with its own regions: it has beaches, snowy wastelands, forests, and everything you'd find on a bonafide planet. The mystery of the Halo's purpose, who built it, and the dark secrets lurking inside of it form the perfect ingredients for a solid sci-fi thriller. There's simply something magical about looking up and watching the world stretch out in front of you.
6. The Observatory - 'Super Mario Galaxy'
Super Mario Galaxy is an incredibly whimsical game, one that thrived on its sense of adventure and wonder. It's only fitting, then, that the hub world for the game be representative of this wonder. The Observatory is a bit different from the other areas on this list in that it doesn't necessarily shock the player with a sense of awe, or try to wow them with its grandeur. Instead, it's a comforting and cozy place to be, thanks in no small part to the music and the adorable little Luma creatures dotting each corner of the zone. The Observatory is the perfect return home after trekking through the various planets of the galaxy.
Side note: I very nearly chose The Fountain of Dreams from Super Smash Brothers: Melee instead, as it gives off a very similar feeling of mystical coziness. The Observatory won out because of its position as a relative safe zone.
5. Zora's Domain - 'The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time'
Ocarina of Time has plenty of mystical areas, but the one that stands out to me the most is Zora's Domain. Zora's Domain has the distinction of being both peaceful and awe-inspiring; the charming music that plays throughout the zone helps to put the player at ease as they explore every crevice of the water-themed city. Whether the player enjoys diving from the waterfall at the top of the city or visiting the gigantic multicolored fish in the Domain's backyard, Zora's Domain has its water-world aesthetic down to a T. Returning here as an adult ups the ante even more, as its peaceful water-filled whimsy has been replaced with the foreboding frozen falls of Ganon's new world.
4. Zanarkand - 'Final Fantasy X'
Zanarkand is only visited for the briefest of moments in the game's introduction, but it certainly leaves an impression. A near-future cityscape fueled entirely by water, Zanarkand is full of awe-inspiring attractions. Whether it be in the hovering sphere of water in the Blitzball stadium, the fantastical sport of Blitzball itself, the towering and glamorous spires inspired by middle eastern architecture, or the breathtaking view of the cityscape visible from the city's main highway, Zanarkand had a lot to offer in a very small amount of time.
Fun fact: Zanarkand is likely (very) loosely based on the real life Samarkand. It may not look nearly as fantastical as Zanarkand, but the similarities are there.
3. Rapture - 'Bioshock'
A city beneath the ocean. The idea has crossed the minds of countless science fiction writers. Bioshock is one of the better executions of the idea that I've seen. Rapture, a city intended as a paradise away from the problems of the surface world, has become a city full of mutants and monsters. The most appealing part of Rapture isn't in its awesome atmosphere or unique 1950's, World War II inspired setting. The main appeal of the city of Rapture is the mystery and intrigue that surrounds it. Why was the city made? What went wrong so many years ago? How does our protagonist tie into this failed utopia? Rapture may be a foreboding place, but the unanswered questions it raises make the player want to explore it further.
2. Satorl Marsh - 'Xenoblade Chronicles'
While all of Xenoblade is full of incredibly creative and jaw-dropping areas, Satorl Marsh takes the cake for how beautiful it is. While it's a fairly standard fantasy marsh setting during the day, once the sun goes down, it turns into an entirely different place. If the music alone doesn't sell you on this area, the sparkling trees and glowing mist and luminous water might do the trick. Be careful, though. While it may look a lot nicer at night, it's also a lot more dangerous.
1. The Forbidden Lands - 'Shadow of the Colossus'
Shadow of the Colossus is the most atmospheric game I've ever played. The Forbidden Lands are a place of mystery. You don't know why they're forbidden, why they're empty and mostly devoid of ordinary life, or why gigantic colossi roam the corners of the land. By the end of the game, many of these questions remain unanswered. The player isn't even given any background as to who Wander, the protagonist, is. All we know is that someone important to him is either asleep or dead, and he's come to this forbidden land of giants to save her. The lack of information given to the player is intentional, and helps to bring out the sense of wonder permeating these lands.
Even when you're not fighting a colossus, and even when you're traversing the empty plains, The Forbidden Lands feel grandiose and magical. If I were to make a comparison, the game feels similar to the stories told in ancient Greek and Roman mythology, where there was an overwhelming sense of wonder, adventure, and unexplained danger to the world. Shadow of the Colossus may be a game that's basically a series of boss fights, but I don't remember it for the colossi alone. I remember it for its dripping atmosphere, which has still yet to be matched by any other game.
What areas gave you a sense of wonder? Do you agree with this list?